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In The Twilight Of Melancholy Jaleh Mansoor On The 2006 Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum Of American Art, New York

2006 Whitney Biennial

The current biennial exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art could be described as a demonstration, drawing on many examples from recent artistic practices, of Freud's well-known text "On Mourning and Melancholia". In Freud's essay, the ego works through the experience of loss, investing libidinal energy on a different object in the process of mourning. Melancholia, however, entails a more elliptical strategy. Rather than accepting loss, the ego identifies with the lost object. "The shadow of the object fell upon the ego [...] the loss of the object had been transformed into the loss of ego." [1]. In this case, the loss of strategies of intervention, of the production of meaning, becomes synonymous with an endless citation of the avant-gardes, understood now as idiomatic rather than as active. The melancholic drive symptomatizes the curatorial vision behind the show, however, more than the contemporary field of production. Despite the usual excellence of her work, curator Chrissie Isles seems to have taken a different route in her collaboration with co-curator Philippe Vergne. That I should choose to rely on a by now rather obsolete and time worn critical model says as much about the show as about the analytical vocabulary available to describe work that looks to the past as its (lost) object of reference without the capacity to reinterpret or exceed that past. The object melancholically longed for, in turn, is the moment in cultural production that traversed the gap between aesthetics and politics, or rather, dissolved an ideologically instated binary, and thereby enacted the capacity of art to effect change, or even simply to produce "affect". Rather than locate new strategies by which to traverse that same divide, only in ways relevant to the present, much of the work in "Day for Night", with some exceptions that take melancholy itself as an object of analysis, and which I discuss later, lingers on historical instantiations of political or socially oriented work. As this year's Biennial makes clear, that object (the social and political potency of art) plays hide and seek, appearing in the avant-gardes of the Twenties only to reappear in the Sixties.

For instance, although Sturtevant has been exploring issues of artistic authenticity since the Sixties, her citation of Duchamp's most well known readymades - the bicycle wheel among others - in the context of this Biennial reads as a desire for a moment when such critical explorations of the parameters by which the institution confers art status on objects still had meaning. Here, the past itself is another readymade among many, utterly reified and there to be cited, but never questioned or redefined. Yes, we accept Duchamp's patrimony; we accept the readymade as the dominant matrix of anything produced after 1955, if not after 1917. But can we ask ourselves what the critical relevance of the readymade may be now? In an era of the reality TV show, a new kind of canned chance, to what extent has the readymade as a critical strategy doubled back to become the figure of a society of control and the impossibility of subjective articulation? Likewise, Josephine Meckseper's installation, "The Complete History of Postcontemporary Art", which presented objects in a glass display case ranging from a stuffed rabbit holding a sign saying "oui", and "non" on the verso (the case is mirrored) to a number of commodity objects, a plunger, a toilet scrubber, perfume bottles, a box of Calvin Klein underwear on the verso of which a news article appears, locates the interchangeability of commodity objects and information media. Her piece also begins to suggest that if the readymade protested the authority and omnipresence of the shop window, it has begun to fail to protest the museum site as a glorified shop.

But the matter of melancholy does not end with recycling the readymade to arrive at another meta-register of readymade. The exhibit's overwhelming sense of melancholy focuses on three lost objects, or rather three faces of a single loss: a despondent look back at the avant-gardes of the Twenties as well as the Sixties, and even, when it comes to painting, the Eighties. In particular, many artists look to Gerhard Richter's work, which had already addressed issues of memory, mourning and loss on a social and historical scale. Here, one particular piece emblematized the tenor of the exhibit: Rudolf Stingel's painting "Untitled (After Sam)" is done in grayscale, evoking the relationship between photography and painterly realism, or between memory and history examined in Gerhard Richter's oeuvre. Stingel's piece is a (self) portrait, executed on the basis of a photograph of the artist, in which he appears on a bed, staring off into space with an expression of exhaustion, his right arm passively extended into the empty space on the bed beside him. The investigation into the archive of the past, the logic of Richter's work, is exchanged for despondency and the crisis of solipsism, and a sense of time as that which stagnates under the regime of loss.

Above all, "Day for Night" posits the avant-gardes and Sixties practices as unfinished political projects. The problem is that the show does not ask after the (im)possibility of historical continuity, or whether once the social context changes, strategies with which to come to grips with that context must also change. One text for the catalogue, in particular, is motivated not only by the hope of illuminating the mutual imbrication of aesthetics and politics, but also by the insistence that the Sixties still have something to say to us about how we can think about that link now. Molly Nesbit's "Letter From Berlin" addresses not only the anti-globalization protests so suddenly silenced after September the 11th, but also the "Palestinian struggle for statehood and peace", as she puts it, as a conflict before which it is impossible to remain neutral. What is striking in Nesbit's "Letter" is not that she finds it necessary to address these concerns in a text that appears in the Biennial catalogue alongside reproductions of works that "do not" manifestly address either problem. The surprise is that she locates the relevance of these issues in the context of recalling the Beuysian strategies of the Sixties. She evokes Beuys as "the artist who hoped for social sculpture, meaning that society itself would become artwork. With that, he entered politics. He founded the German Student Party in 1967, the Organization for Direct Democracy in 1970, and became a founding member of the German Green Party in 1979." The trouble here is that none of these political moments could say anything to the "present" difficulty for art and politics to speak to one another in any way other than as an enforcement of consensus.

But Nesbit's text brings me to yet another, if not final, object of melancholy longing: Joseph Beuys. The top floor of "Day for Night" seems to showcase a number of works, such as Gedi Sibony's "The Qualities Depend on Other Qualities", that quote Beuys's notorious and idiomatic use of materials placed relationally in the space of exhibition. Here, formal idioms that once held meaning have, like emptied shells, been divested of their strategic import. If anything, the air of impotence lingering about the objects strewn throughout the galleries, and the show's nostalgia for the potency of the avant-garde as well as Sixties practices, is carried out to such a degree as to redeem the melancholic look back as a moving approach to production in its own right.

Melancholy, while neither productive nor critically reflective, at least extravagantly and shamelessly permits the symptoms to "appear". Steven Parrino's large monochrome canvases, for instance, hybridize the historical painterly qualities of Frank Stella or Lucio Fontana with the memory of an East Village post-punk era figured forth through cartoon depictions of the likes of, say, Lydia Lunch. This baroque enfoldment of disparate moments of past cultural rebellion wonderfully frames the impasses of the present. The late Steven Parrino's frequent collaborator, Jutta Koether, also indulges beautifully in the kind of masquerade of adolescent subjectivity brought about by a constant fan-like look to the (recent) past as a source of identity formation. Her black paintings recall a "Goth" moment in pop culture. Sloppily strewn about the gallery, they present a self-reflexive (to the point of narcissistic) exploration of the inability to locate a self in the anomie of the present.

This making of appearances is actively explored in some work as that which exceeds the logic of spectacle. Pierre Huyghe's "A Journey that Wasn't" goes beyond the limits of melancholy by refusing to entertain nostalgia for historical negative-critical artistic strategies. Instead, he wholly embraces spectacle to explore the ways in which communities are formed through myths, fictions, and spectacular expectations. Having traveled to the Antarctic to locate a mysterious white creature, the object of much lore, Huyghe restaged the event at Wollman Rink in Central Park, New York, before a large audience, making a second fictitious expedition of a voyage itself centered around fictions. The work explores the potential of fiction to bind and unbind social units. Ultimately, the exhibit's weaknesses pointed to its greatest strengths. While the burden of a melancholic longing for critical practices of the past does little to carve out new forms of resistance to a society of control, the current Whitney Biennial did more than any other contemporary show or forum to articulate the symptoms of the present moment.

"Day for Night", Whitney Biennial 2006, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, March 2 until May 28, 2006


[1]Sigmund Freud, "Mourning and Melancholia", in: The Penguin Freud Reader, ed. by Adam Phillips, London 2006, p. 316.